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« Autofocus v. 2 on its way | Main | Back to Autofocus »
Saturday
Jun132009

Autofocus: a closer look at "dismissal"

One of the most important parts of the Autofocus system is the concept of “dismissal”.

The Autofocus instructions state:

If you go to a page and no item stands out for you on your first pass through it, then all the outstanding items on that page are dismissed without re-entering them.

This is where the system finally gets rid of all the items which you entered without evaluation, but which the system has sifted and found wanting. This may happen very quickly (for instance if you have entered a long list of books you are thinking of reading), but more usually quite slowly.

Please take the rule not to re-enter these items seriously. It doesn’t mean you can never re-enter them, but you should let some time pass before you do and consider carefully why they were rejected, whether they really need to be done at all, whether the time is ripe for them to be done, whether they distract from your main goals, and any other factors. When you do re-enter a dismissed item, it is often best to break it down or re-phrase it in some way.

The instructions make it clear that dismissal is where the final stage of the “autofocus” aspect of the system takes place. This is why it is possible to put tasks and projects into the system without evaluation. Without the dismissal process, Autofocus would simply be a method of working a to-do list and little more.

Every page on your AF list is going  to face you at some stage with the choice of either doing the final task on the page or dismissing it. Of course more than one task may get dismissed on the page, but the choice always comes down to: “Do it NOW, or admit that you are not going to do it at all”. Normally of course this stark choice only comes after you have had plenty of opportunity to do the task.

Yes, a task can be re-instated by being eventually re-entered on the list, but this should never be something that takes place without considered thought - preferably after some time has passed. There are four major factors which the instructions ask you to consider along with anything else that may be relevant:

  • why the task was rejected
  • whether it really needs to be done at all
  • whether the time is now ripe for it to be done
  • whether the task distracts from your main goals

The instructions invite you initially to enter tasks on your list without evaluating them. This makes AF very different from most time management systems. But, once a task has been sifted and dismissed, then evaluation of the task must take place. If the task has been evaluated and it has been decided to re-enter it, the instructions suggest that you should consider:

  • breaking the task down further
  • re-writing it

I can’t stress how important it is to the proper working of the system to get this right. Your understanding of the dismissal process will affect how you tackle all your tasks within AF.

There are two common mistakes made by beginners to AF with regard to dismissal. One is to be too willing to dismiss tasks, and the other is to be too reluctant to dismiss tasks.

In fact these are not two mistakes at all - they are the same mistake. In both cases, the beginner has taken a conscious attitude towards dismissal: willing/reluctant.

The instructions say nothing about taking any attitude towards dismissal. They simply state: If you go to a page and no item stands out for you on your first pass through it, then all the outstanding items on that page are dismissed without re-entering them. So the only matter to be considered is whether any item stands out. You don’t need to consciously consider whether the item should be dismissed at all - your intuition will have already taken all relevant factors into account.

Reader Comments (31)

I have not yet been able to make AF work well for me, and this post gives one prime example of why that is so. I use a reliable task management system so that I can clear tasks out of my head. In AF, when I dismiss a task, often it will still be in my head. I can't reenter it until "after some time has passed", and in the meantime, I'm remembering it and wondering if I have already reentered it somewhere in my many pages of tasks, or have I entered it twice (happens to me a lot), or whether enough time has passed that I can put it back. I cannot trust the system to give me what I need, when I need it.

I'm not sure whether it is the nature of my work, or the manner of my thinking, or perhaps I am just a slow learner, but after 2-1/2 months I haven't been able to relax and lean on AF. I continue to use it because 1) as a professional organizer who works with clients around time management, I want to understand as many tools as possible, and 2) I'm curious about how people organize information, and I am my own most available lab rat!
June 13, 2009 at 14:11 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret Lukens
Margaret:

I admire your persistence in sticking with a system for two and a half months that you are not happy with, especially as you already have a reliable task management system that gives you what you need when you need it (I'd love to know what it is).

From what you say most of your problems with Autofocus seem to be about worrying whether you are dealing with tasks correctly. In answer to your specific points:

"When I dismiss a task, often it will still be in my head". If you highlight dismissed tasks as recommended in the instructions then it's easy to do a quick review of tasks that have been dismissed. You can make this review itself a task in AF. That way you don't need to worry about remembering it.

"I'm...wondering if I have already reentered it somewhere in my many pages of tasks". If you're cycling through the pages correctly in the normal course of working AF you will usually be pretty well aware of what is in the list. But if you have re-entered something in error, frankly who cares? It's not worth worrying about.

"Have I entered it twice (happens to me a lot)?" It happens to me a lot too. If I notice duplicates I delete the later one, but I don't worry about it.

"I'm wondering...whether enough time has passed that I can put it back". There's no definition of "enough time". You decide as part of your review of the items. Whatever task, time or project management system you use it's going to be necessary to review delayed projects and tasks and make conscious decisions whether the time is now ripe to do them.
June 13, 2009 at 15:25 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark,
I'm have abandoned my Palm m500 and only use it for storing information. Calendar items and task I do with AF at least for one month - and (never supposed) it works great. I have one issue with dismissing tasks and haven't found a solution which works for me - maybe I don't see the forest for the trees:

If I'm on an active page which let's say has 2 items remaining. One item I can dismiss without worrying, but the other is an important and outstanding item. Due to a shortage of time I can't do this task now, respectivelly today. If I follow your instruction I have to dismiss this task - BUT I WON'T. My current solution on this is to strike this item and enter it on the last page. Is this the way it is supposed to be?

Cheers, Jens
P.S. I'm a frequent reader, but this is my first post here. Thus, I wan't to take the opportunity to say: Thanks for sharing your system, ideas and thougths!!!
June 13, 2009 at 16:05 | Unregistered CommenterJens
Margaret,

One advantage of implementing AF electronically is that it's then easy to search for tasks and see whether you've already entered or re-entered a task you're thinking about entering. This won't be so important if Mark's response works for you, but it's another way of addressing the issue.
June 13, 2009 at 17:20 | Unregistered CommenterMartin
When Does AF allow to dismiss a task ?
If I dismiss it too soon, there won't be this sort of intuitive evaluation on it in the following reviews of that page.
June 13, 2009 at 17:35 | Unregistered CommenterKarl
Jens:

This is why I said that your attitude to dismissing affects ALL your tasks. If you're down to two items on a page, you will have had plenty of opportunity to do the important and outstanding item - but you haven't. Dismissing the task forces you to consider WHY you haven't done it before. Crossing it out and re-entering it does nothing except perpetuate the problem you are having with that task.
June 13, 2009 at 17:57 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Karl:

<< When Does AF allow to dismiss a task ? >>

AF doesn't ALLOW you to dismiss a task. It TELLS you to dismiss it under the circumstances given in the rule which I quoted in this post. I suggest you re-read it.
June 13, 2009 at 17:59 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
If I've understood well, you don't dismiss a task if there's still some tasks that you are willing to do
June 13, 2009 at 18:57 | Unregistered CommenterKarl
Karl:

Yes. On each visit to a page you have to do a minimum of one task, otherwise all the remaining tasks are dismissed.
June 13, 2009 at 19:21 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark - the brilliance of AF shines with each blog post (expanding on the "rules". You've got a book here pal... you do.
June 13, 2009 at 21:31 | Unregistered CommenterAvrum
Avrum:

Yes, I think I might have!
June 13, 2009 at 23:23 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark,

AF works for me well. From my own experience, which pretty much aligns with this post, is simply allowing the system to work. Surely, when a page is dismissed, the tasks on that page has had its time for consideration for quite a few times. When the time comes, dismissal is natural.

After reading the post, I did some thinking on the issue. I was not aware of any hesitation or reluctance. To trace back, I believe that the "cycle of considerations" has allowed me enough time to feel comfortable with "letting go", and I know that I could enter the item back to the list again any time I wanted.

Maybe it is the fear of being "wrong" that drive some of us to hesitate. When a task is on the list, it seems that we are still putting some weight on it despite the fact that it may be in the endless postponement loop.

When I first adopted AF, I kept a separate list for those "dismissed" items in order to play safe. But after a few weeks, that page was left untouched for quite some time and so I dismiss it as well.

In fact, to truly implement the system, you have to first have faith in it. When you trust AF, you'll find it quite a joyful and relaxing system that really work for you.
June 14, 2009 at 14:16 | Unregistered CommenterCatus Lee
Mark, In your first answer to Margaret, you mention that "Whatever task, time or project management system you use it's going to be necessary to review delayed projects and tasks and make conscious decisions whether the time is now ripe to do them.".
When I read through the AF rules and comments, I could not see how to handle projects - other than keep breaking them down during the dismissal/re-evaluation steps.

Does the AF list then only apply to active, shovel-ready tasks and if so do you keep a separate system for handling the non shovel ready / delayed tasks and major projects that are not yet active ?


Am I reading it right that dismissal only applies if you move to a new page and find nothing that grabs you there at all ? So if I come to a page and find something, do it and look again and find nothing else, I can then move on, without worrying about dismissal. Without this latest post on dismissal, I could not get my head around how you could go through your 20+ page list several times a day without everything getting dismissed.

Thank you for your clarifications here. Please add "Write AF book" to your project list and try not to dismiss it too early
June 14, 2009 at 15:24 | Unregistered CommenterRoger
Roger:

You can enter items into your Autofocus list at any level. So you can have "World Domination Project" alongside "Sharpen Pencils" - it's a matter of finding the level for each individual project that works for you. Obviously for your world domination project you are probably going to need some plans and back-up documentation, but those would be part of the project not part of the time-management system.

Yes, you are correct that dismissal only applies if you move to a new page and find nothing that grabs you there at all - or to put it another way: "If you go to a page and no item stands out for you on your first pass through it"
June 14, 2009 at 19:08 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Jens

you say " but the other is an important and outstanding item. Due to a shortage of time I can't do this task now, respectivelly today."

Don't forget that you are not required to COMPLETE the task, just work on it for as long as you want. Clearly the task stands out for you, so you shouldn't dismiss the page. Few tasks are so monolithic that they cannot be broken down into smaller pieces (little and often, remember). So in this case, you could spend one minute working on the first step, and then enter the next step at the end of the list. That little bit at the beginning may be just what is needed to break your resistance to working on this task. See also

http://www.markforster.net/blog/2008/10/3/how-to-phrase-task-items.html

and

http://www.markforster.net/forum/post/802161
June 15, 2009 at 0:04 | Unregistered CommenterJaroslav
Jaroslav

Great links. Thanks for the pointers.

I wanted to take mild issue with the generality of your statement "Few tasks are so monolithic that they cannot be broken down into smaller pieces ". There are some which can be broken down, but cannot be actioned separately.

Take "Paint Garage door". That involves getting all the gear out, painting the door and cleanup - leaving aside separable tasks like prep, prime etc. I cannot really stop this when I feel like it. I have to complete the entire sequence or I am left with a bunch of cruddy brushes and have to waste them.

What if you have an otherwise dismissable page full of items, but paint the garage is one of them and I do not have the 2 hours of daylight needed to do it due to other commitments. This cannot be dismissed/reentered in the traditional sense of break it down or rewrite it. It is an atomic transaction (DBMS speak) that must be completed.

Should I not have it in the AF task diary system ? Should it be in my scheduled tasks instead as it requires a time-block ? Should I keep a job-jar list as well as my home and work lists and assign one day to job jar tasks ?

Another conundrum I have would be those tasks where the resources are outside your control. Say that "mow lawn" is one of the tasks on the Otherwise Dismissable Page (ODP ? ). Would love to do it but it is raining. Do I dismiss ? do I reenter immediately at the list end ? GTD would handle this with contexts and pretty soon your list is so complex due to all the weird contexts (@sunnyday) you develop to handle the exceptions.

My background is systems so please do not take this as nitpicking a wonderful system. I really want to test the boundary conditions for those few non-conforming scenarios and see what other options there are.
June 15, 2009 at 17:04 | Unregistered CommenterRoger
Roger:

My own practice with this sort of "conditional" task - where the conditions have to be right to do it - is to enter the task with a query, e.g. Paint Garage Door? Mow Lawn?

If your answer to the questions is No, then you have answered the question and can cross the task out and re-enter it.

I know this sounds like nit-picking, but the important thing is not to create in your mind the idea that you can skip the rules. Once you make one exception, others soon follow. It's a psychological thing - but then basically so is the whole of time management.
June 15, 2009 at 17:10 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Roger:

Another possibility with big tasks like that is to schedule them: I.e. If you see 'paint garage door' on your list, you look through your calendar to find a more suitable block of time and schedule painting the door for then. That counts as doing something on the task.
June 15, 2009 at 22:50 | Unregistered CommenterEd C
Mark, to answer your question, my reliable system for over 10 years has been to list discrete tasks on my calendar program Now Up to Date (for Mac), which has my favorite task function of any calendar program I know. I have a lot of recurring tasks, which it handles well. Also, I can drag and drop tasks, so if on Sunday I look at the week and see that I have 15 tasks on a day filled with back-to-back appointments, I can begin moving, delegating or renegotiating those tasks. It also allows for undated tasks (could be analogous to the GTD "someday/maybe" category) though I no longer use it since it displays these lower-level tasks too prominently and creates visual clutter. I sync the calendar to my Palm, so I can reliably enter tasks when I am not in the office, something I miss with paper systems including AF.

I am considering changing to DayLite productivity suite as soon as I can make time to deal with its learning curve, which I understand can be steep. That will mean leaving Now Up to Date behind.
June 15, 2009 at 23:40 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret Lukens
Margaret:

I don't know Now Up to Date or DayLite as I don't have a Mac. I suspect Above & Beyond may be a similar program. I don't know if it has a Mac version, but if it does you might find it interesting.
June 15, 2009 at 23:45 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Ed C,

I appreciate the alternate perspective there. It is one I had explored a little but then I got caught up in the main post subject which seemed to be "to dismiss or not to dismiss ?". Mark stressed that this is a rule not a guideline and I was trying to explore how to handle an apparent exception without breaking the rules.

I think I tend to take on projects that get stalled when I hit a chunk that is larger than I have available and get shelved. My natural instinct would be to do as you suggest and move it to the calendar, but I cannot schedule sunshine (yet) and the weather predictors are pretty poor for my area. a probability of precipitation of 70% means maybe, whereas 30% means for sure.

I think that I got my answer from Mark as permission to reschedule (or at least reenter) if the weather gods are not conducive. (BTW, I do not even have a garage, let alone a door, but wanted some task that would be universal on both sides of the pond and beyond).

I like the use of a "?" marker to flag the task as one that does not mandate dismissal of the page if it is not possible. This will prevent the abuse that could come from giving myself permission to say "well, I don't feel like it so I wont dismiss it completely ...", which is really the point of Marks initial post.

Sometimes I cannot play out the system in my mind well enough, even when I re-read it as it is so succinct and looks so simple. There must be more to it, I keep thinking, but I will keep trying it and reading others comments to get more perspective till the book comes out.

I do hope that Mark does not feel that he is in a fencing match with 50 distant opponents who are all trying to see if his technique really works. I really appreciate that he is willing to put the techniques out there and respond so graciously to those of us who don't get it the first (2nd, 3rd .. 42nd) time, and still keep pointing sharp points at him. And to all the others on the site that provide great pointers like yours. Thanks all. Hmmm, maybe I should start my next question with "En Garde!"
June 17, 2009 at 2:01 | Unregistered CommenterRoger
It's getting too reliant on mood and feeling. I can't depend on my own emotions to direct me to a task on time. That's why I prefer DIT or even an old-fashioned To-Do list where I simply have to do something this week whether I want to or not. Leaving it to my changing moods seems hazardous, and all of this haggling over whether or not I should dismiss a task, is not for me.
June 18, 2009 at 11:59 | Unregistered CommenterSteve
Steve:

<< all of this haggling over whether or not I should dismiss a task, is not for me. >>

The haggling is only on the discussion forum. The AF instructions are quite clear and specific about when to dismiss a task.

"New AF" (for want of a better name) will make most of this discussion irrelevant anyway.
June 18, 2009 at 12:29 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I like combining with Autofocus with what I think may be the most brilliant element of GTD: the Someday/Maybe list. If you are clearly not ready to do something but find yourself reluctant to dismiss it entirely (because perhaps someday you will be ready for it), add it to this list. This keeps the idea from being "lost" but keeps it out of your head. Reviewing the someday/maybe list can be an Autofocus task (this is not the same as reviewing dismissed tasks as suggested above; there is overlap between dismissed tasks and Someday/Maybe ideas, but neither should be a subset of the other). If you're like me, you'll end up dismissing some things from the Someday/Maybe list and adding other things back to your Autofocus list when the time feels right.
June 18, 2009 at 15:06 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer
Hi Jennifer - I find that the act of dismissing by highlighting the item peppers the AF list with a bunch of tasks that can be reviewed by flipping through the pages. Essentially, a Someday/Maybe list embedded in the AF list.

But I guess the important difference is that the action is first added to the AF list and is dismissed if it is not actioned after a few passes. The benefit here is that ample opportunity is given to process that item before dismissing, thus one is not forced to choose whether the put that item directly to the S/M list or the main working list.
June 19, 2009 at 4:28 | Unregistered CommenterJD
JD:

Yes, that's exactly the way it's supposed to work. There's not intended to be any need for a someday/maybe list.
June 19, 2009 at 9:04 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I had a bit of an epiphany in the whole dismissal thing the other day. I think I was following the rules correctly, but I still started to resist using the list at all when the number of pages became large. I think this was partly because, even though I was dismissing, I wasn't really prepared for the work tasks to be dismissed.

But the other day I realised that, actually, if I write everything down that crosses my desk at work, I *should* be dropping (or delegating) perhaps even a majority of tasks. I just hadn't got my mind right about that basic fact that, if I want to do my job well, I need to really focus on the 20% or so of tasks that give the most payoff.

But it's difficult for some (possibly over-conscientious) people to want to admit that some things are going to go by the wayside. I'm fairly confident that AF can help make this decision, but I did think that, after dismissing work tasks which I thought were genuinely being dropped, as opposed to being kept for future consideration, it might help to effectively renegotiate the implicit commitment to doing them. E.g. By telling yourself they won't be done and actually crossing out, or by going back to the original source of the task and confirming that it isn't important.
June 20, 2009 at 9:01 | Unregistered CommenterEd C
2 July 2009


To: Steve's Comment of 6/18/09:

Steve what does "DIT" stand for? I couldn't find it in a couple of acronym lists.

Too All: (Is there an appropriate acronym list on this or some other site? I am not familiar with many of the acronyms used in these threads.)

Thanks.

d crow
July 2, 2009 at 18:42 | Unregistered Commenterd crow
d crow: "what does "DIT" stand for?"

Marks last book was called "Do It Tomorrow" and is often abbreviated as DIT here - especially for people like me who keep putting too many ems in the word tomorrow.
July 9, 2009 at 2:10 | Unregistered CommenterRoger D
Sorry for the last post. I thought my HTML would be parsed. Let's try again...

Ok, I am a little confused. I have created a 3-day AF2 list they way I understand it.
.
Day1 7/11/09
I created my list
Read from top to bottom
Worked my way up from the bottom completing tasks.
.
Day2 7/12/09
Drew a line after item 4, the oldest block of un-actioned items and put them on notice.
Read from top to bottom
Worked my way up from the bottom completing tasks.
Added tasks as needed
.
Day 3 7/13/09
***Dismissed un-actioned items from previous day’s “On Notice” List (those above line 4)
Drew a line after item 8, the oldest block of un-actioned items and put THEM on notice.
Read from top to bottom
Worked my way up from the bottom completing tasks.
Added tasks as needed
.
If this is the way it works, what happens to my ***Dismissed item 4 “Create Powerpoint”, which is due on Aug 1? This is the reason I had not completed it by day 3, the day I am supposed to dismiss it. I understand it is still on the list and visible but then what is the point of “dismissing it” What am I missing?
.
7/11/2009
1 Solve world hunger
2 Buy puppy
3 Search for cheaper auto insurance
4 Create PowerPoint for Boss
5 ***ACTIONED*** Schedule a physical
6 Install doggy door
7 Buy new tires
8 Build shelves for garage
9 Wash & wax truck
10 Fix cracked tiles in master bath
11 Order new flooring for remodel
12 ***ACTIONED*** Update Netflix que
13 Buy new hammer
14 ***ACTIONED*** Renew magazine subscription
15 Refresh Web page for business
16 Find new handyman
17 ***ACTIONED*** Fire current handyman
.
7/12/2009
1 $$$ON NOTICE$$$ Solve world hunger
2 $$$ON NOTICE$$$ Buy puppy
3 ***ACTIONED*** Search for cheaper auto insurance
4 Create PowerPoint for Boss
---------------------------------------------------
5 ***ACTIONED*** Schedule a physical
6 Install doggy door
7 Buy new tires
8 Build shelves for garage
9 ***ACTIONED*** Wash & wax truck
10 Fix cracked tiles in master bath
11 Order new flooring for remodel
12 ***ACTIONED*** Update Netflix que
13 ***ACTIONED*** Buy new hammer
14 ***ACTIONED*** Renew magazine subscription
15 Refresh Web page for business
16 ***ACTIONED*** Find new handyman
17 ***ACTIONED*** Fire current handyman
18 Update resume
19 ***ACTIONED*** Return borrowed cup of sugar
20 Change passwords on online accounts
21 Reconcile check book
.
7/13/2009
1 @@@DISMISSED@@@ Solve world hunger
2 @@@DISMISSED@@@ Buy puppy
3 ***ACTIONED*** Search for cheaper auto insurance
4 @@@DISMISSED@@@ Create PowerPoint fo Boss
----------------------------------------
5 ***ACTIONED*** Schedule a physical
6 $$$ON NOTICE$$$ Install doggy door
7 $$$ON NOTICE$$$ Buy new tires
8 $$$ON NOTICE$$$ Build shelves for garage
----------------------------------------
9 ***ACTIONED*** Wash & wax truck
10 Fix cracked tiles in master bath
11 Order new flooring for remodel
12 ***ACTIONED*** Update Netflix que
13 ***ACTIONED*** Buy new hammer
14 ***ACTIONED*** Renew magazine subscription
15 Refresh Web page for business
16 ***ACTIONED*** Find new handyman
17 ***ACTIONED*** Fire current handyman
18 Update resume
19 ***ACTIONED*** Return borrowed cup of sugar
20 Change passwords on online accounts
21 Reconcile check book
22 Order new checks
23 Get anniversary gift for wife

And so on and so forth....
July 14, 2009 at 18:41 | Unregistered CommenterNeil
Neil,

You could just leave the Powerpoint Presentation in a Tickler File, or in some electronic todo program and have it remind you a week or so early (maybe July 24th) to put it on the AF list. You can also solve the problem by doing a little bit on the Powerpoint presentation on July 12th before you dismiss it, which allows you to cross it off the list at item four, and reenter it at the bottom. You do not have to complete items to cross them off.

You can also add a new task labeled "Check Dismissed Items" to the bottom of your AF list. I use Google Calendar to remind me every week to add that task to my AF list, a long with other items that I repeat every week or two.

So weekly, I review my dismissed items and either ignore them for a week or so, add them back to the list, or rewrite them in some way.

So on July 13, you could make a few calls to check and compare tire prices, draw up some preliminary plans on the doggy door and shelves for the garage, cross them off the list and reenter them at the bottom. Voila! nothing dismissed, and you really got something done!
July 14, 2009 at 23:55 | Unregistered CommenterChris

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